– Gameness til the End
“Han-u (한우 in Korean, also Hanu, Hanwoo, or Korean native cattle) refers to a breed of cattle raised in Korea, Bos taurus coreanae, which may be a hybrid derived from the cross-breeding of cattle and zebu. Its maternal lineage is taurine (European-type) cattle.
Its meat is a favorite in South Korea. Despite its high price, many Koreans prefer Han-u to cheaper imported beef as the former is regarded as fresher and of better quality. One paper noted, “Hanwoo is regarded as a premium beef because of its high palatability and desired chewiness”. Since Koreans consider Han-u beef a cultural icon and one of the top-quality beefs of the world, it is used in traditional foods, popular holiday dishes, or as a special-day gift. Hoengseong County is best known for its Han-u cattle, where the environment is well-suited for cattle farming. The county began a strategic marketing campaign in 1995 to brand itself as the origin of the highest quality beef in Korea.”
April 30, 2015 8:26 AM ET
The General (right) and his opponent, Dragon, lock horns during this year’s Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival in South Korea. There are no matadors and no swords in the South Korean version. The bulls fight until one turns and runs. Marius Stankiewicz for NPR
Sitting in a stadium that seats 10,000, I look down at the ring and something I never thought I’d see in Asia: a bullfight.
But instead of pitting matador versus beast, two bulls face off in the South Korean version. And befitting a Buddhist country, the battle ends not in death, but in surrender. In some cases, one of the combatants simply turns and wanders off.
“In Korean bullfighting there is no mortal end in sight for these beasts of burden,” my interpreter says.
The small town of Cheongdo, in the country’s south, hosts the annual Bullfighting Festival every spring at the stadium.
“In Spain, it is a game between a human and a bull, with the bull being killed in the end,” says town Mayor Lee Seung-yool. “But in Korea, we feel proud of the fact that we don’t kill the bull and that they don’t ever die in a fight. We simply let them express their emotions to each other and when one loses its strength, it turns away and shows its back. That is when the bull says he is done. The fight is brought to an end.”
The judges, wearing green blazers, white gloves and cowboy hats, enter the 10,000-seat stadium and take their places before the bullfighting begins. Marius Stankiewicz for NPR
After a tractor rakes the dirt, the judges in green blazers, white gloves and cowboy hats enter the bovine battleground, bow to the audience and take their places.
Then the competitors come trundling out of the tunnel: The General, a hulking brown bull with a red bulls-eye painted on its body, and his opponent, Dragon, identified by a blue bulls-eye and led by a handler in a puncture-proof vest.
After snorting, moaning and scraping the dirt with their forefeet, two of South Korea’s fiercest bulls clash — racking horns and head butting. But there’s not a lot of gore, and certainly not death.
Spectators place bets and watch the fight on screens. The maximum bet is 100,000 South Korean won, or about $95. Marius Stankiewicz for NPR
“It is a thousand-year-old tradition passed down from our ancestors,” says Lee Kang-min, an avid fan who has attended every year but one since the stadium was built in 2002. The only exception was last year, when the festival was canceled due to the ferry disaster that killed more than 300, many of them high school students.
“Bulls would naturally fight each other when farmers would take them out to the pastures,” he says. “The fighting then became a part of our culture so it was transformed into a competition for everyone to enjoy.”
When young bulls are about a year old, around the time they’re fitted with nose rings, they are also assessed to see if they have what it takes to fight. Head size, horn shape and strength of the hind legs are all factors.
Outside the stadium where the Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival takes place every spring in the southern part of South Korea. Marius Stankiewicz for NPR
The bulls selected are then put through intense training to beef up their size and strength: they haul tires with a rope tied to the neck, they run in the pastures, and rack their horns against tree trunks.
Unlike other places, betting on these bullfights isn’t just permitted, it’s encouraged. The maximum bet is capped at 100,000 won, or about $95.
“I enjoy coming here with my family, not only to admire the bulls and their strength but to wager a little bit of money,” says Park Ji-hun, another spectator. “Hitting the jackpot isn’t on many people’s minds; it is just for fun.”
What he said rang true. When I attended, there were neither frenzied winners nor losers hanging their heads in dismay.
I did not see the “intensest degree of emotion in the spectator,” something Ernest Hemingway once said that results from seeing “good bullfighters” fighting “good bulls.”
But perhaps that was understandable in a country known as “The Land of Morning Calm.”
At the end of the day, I place a 10,000 won bet on Wild Beast. He barely locks horns with his opponent when the rival bull breaks off and runs away.
It is the shortest fight of the day, lasting less than 10 seconds. But it earns me a win and a bit of Zen, happily achieved without the sight of a matador, a red cape or lances dangling from the bloody nape of a bull.